book review

Fluidity of ocean and memory: A review of The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat’s Table is one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.

“I could see she was beginning to approach her memory of it now, glimpsing a few incidents…thinking deeper into herself.”
– Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

Amid the excitement surrounding the release of George R.R. Martin’s newest book, A Dance with Dragons, I also heard a common complaint: Martin, many of his truest fans contend, takes far too long between installments, leaving readers hanging for years at a time.

Michael Ondaatje, one of Canada’s literary superstars, doesn’t seem to garner the same complaint, despite breaks of five to eight years between titles. His admirers await his books with patient anticipation. In return, Ondaatje crafts works such as The Cat’s Table, one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.

I say narratives because The Cat’s Table encompasses many stories: in its seemingly straightforward telling of a boy’s 21 days on a ship bound from Sri Lanka to England, its deeply complex characters offer glimpses of chance encounters and intermingled lives. The book is a palimpsest, the story of an 11-year-old boy named Michael, told by his older self who happens to be a well-known writer, written by Michael Ondaatje, who includes a disclaimer that while he took a similar trip as a boy, this work is purely fictional. These three Michaels intersect with one another in a memory play seen through the lens of the ship. The language and reflections are mature: this is the understanding only an adult can bring when he looks back at himself years later, trying to come to grips with how the smallest of actions can ripple through many lives over many years.

The titular Cat’s Table is the opposite of the Captain’s Table, the least prestigious spot in the dining room. The characters who gather around it pass through young Michael’s shipbound existence, from his two contemporaries who raise hell with him all over the ship to the adults at the table, including Mr. Mazappa, the piano teacher with two names, Mr. Hastie, the keeper of the kennels, and Miss Lesqueti, the shrinking wallflower who is more than she appears to be. Michael’s beautiful older cousin Emily moves in and out of the narrative as well, a member of the upper decks and upper classes who finds herself pulled into the swirling activity below. You get the sense that an entire novel could be devoted to any one of these subsidiary characters, even though they figure in only small ways in Michael’s story.

Without ever belabouring a description, Ondaatje fills the reader’s world with the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship and the ports it slips through. He also inverts the idea of the ship as a closed-off setting. This ain’t no bottle episode. The ship is a wonderland with myriad decks and enough forbidden places to keep a gang of three boys busy for weeks. It is peopled by ailing millionaires, live pigeons, unseen violinists, and the prisoner, a mysterious figure whose close-guarded nightly walks become a focal point for the boys, giving their days structure and their imaginations fodder. And there is always the sense that there is more to see, more to hear and overhear, than anything Michael and his friends can comprehend. The boys end up everywhere from the captain’s quarters to the deepest bowels of the ship, discovering hidden gardens with hidden poisons, exploring port towns, and hiding in lifeboats to intrude ever so gently upon the people passing by.

In Michael’s world, the adults and the upper classes float along without changing or effecting change. They play bridge and vie to be toasted by one another at the Captain’s Table, but they also miss the excitement happening all around them. They’re thrilled by a mind reader while the boys see how that mind reader accomplishes his supposed magic. They miss entirely the nighttime passage through the Suez Canal, while the boys see everything, make fleeting contact through waves and shouts with the people on land, and witness their passage out of the East and into the West, out of their old world and into something new.

Memory and time are as fluid as the ocean the ship traverses, a moment in childhood with momentum but no fixed address. The narrative is overall a linear one, starting at the beginning of the journey, ending when the Oronsay arrives in England, but this is also a collection of stories. As the older Michael reflects on a particular character, events jump forward in time, following that character’s interaction with Michael throughout the years before looping back to pick up where we left off on the ship. We arrive at the end of the book a little wiser, a little changed, just as the characters at the Cat’s Table are.

Without falling into the triteness of a typical coming-of-age story, The Cat’s Table offers a refined, note-perfect journey of how three weeks can alter the course of lives. And it’s some damned good storytelling too. I genuinely cared for these people and their misadventures, and when it was time to depart for other shores, I was left hoping that I would run into them again.

Five out of five blue pencils

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, published by McClelland & Stewart, © 2011

Available at the M&S site,, Indigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

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